Patient's Snooping Claim Amounts to Defamation

     (CN) - A woman who wrongly accused a clinic employee of revealing her pregnancy in breach of medical confidentiality committed defamation, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled.
     Karen Greene complained that Beverly Tinker improperly gained access to Greene's medical file at the Pilot Station Health Clinic in 2007.
     Though Tinker said she merely looked up an appointment date, which she shared with clerical worker Rose Zacharof, Greene said Tinker was trying to discover her medical information.
     The two woman are distant relatives, and "there is a history of animosity" between their families, according to Friday's ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court.
     After Greene complained to the operator of the clinic, Tinker was reprimanded and instructed never to look at Greene's files again.
     A pregnant Greene went to the clinic for prenatal care in 2011. She asked one of the staffers not to tell Tinker about her due date.
     Zacharof nevertheless later informed Greene that Tinker had told her that Greene was pregnant and that she knew Greene's due date. Greene confronted Tinker at work and complained to the clinic again.
     Denying that she had looked at Greene's files again, Tinker said she learned of the pregnancy through a gossip chain that began with Greene herself.
     After Greene took her complaints to the tribal council, Tinker briefly obtained a restraining order by claiming that Greene was stalking her.
     Though the clinic deemed Greene's confidentiality claim against Tinker unsubstantiated, it fired Tinker for breaching the confidentiality of another patient.
     Tinker sued Greene for defamation, and Greene countersued for invasion of privacy and abuse of process, the latter involving the protective order.
     After a three-day trial in Bethel, a jury ruled for Tinker, finding that Greene had falsely accused her of accessing her medical records. The jury also said Greene had abused her conditional privilege to complain about Tinker's alleged misconduct.
     Tinker received $1 in damages and $12,015 in attorneys' fees, and the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the decision Friday.
     "The right to speak freely is not an absolute one - speech in abuse of the right is not protected," Chief Justice Dana Fabe wrote for the court.
     Fabe also upheld the lower court's decision to exclude witnesses whom Greene wanted to testify about Tinker's past alleged breaches of medical confidentiality.
     "In light of our conclusion that Greene had, at most, a conditional privilege, the bad-acts testimony would be irrelevant," the 41-page opinion states.